“Lessons in talking climate with Albertan Oil Workers” (Feb. 21), included: “In Alberta, recognising the role that oil and gas has played in securing local livelihoods proved crucial. Most environmentalists would balk at a narrative of ‘gratitude’ towards oil, but co-producing an equitable path out of fossil fuel dependency means making oil sands workers feel valued, not attacked. Empathic language that acknowledges oil’s place in local history could therefore be the key to cultivating support for decarbonisation.
The report by Climate Outreach (George Marshall et al) recommends a narrative of ‘diversification’ rather than ‘transition’, stressing positive future opportunities instead of moving away from a negative past.
I spoke to George Marshall, co-founder of Climate Outreach and lead author of the report, about why we should be talking to oil sands workers about climate change.
He told me: “we don’t think anyone has really listened in this way to oil workers in Alberta. There is a tendency, especially among activists, to write them off. And that animosity is entirely mutual. But this is a mistake. Firstly because these are people with livelihoods to protect. Their needs should be respected. Alberta also plays a significant strategic position in Canadian politics. Who they vote for is important.”
In any democracy, what people think about climate change has serious implications for our ability to do something about it. Albertan oil sands are the poster child for a North American economy heavily reliant on extractive industries. Learning how to talk about climate change in a community as politically divided on the issue as Alberta could hold far-reaching benefits for similar efforts continent wide, and even globally.
Effecting an energy transition in Alberta will have deep economic and social impacts, yet many environmental movements have a fairly monolithic view of the fossil fuels industry. The Alberta Narratives Project shows there is more to oil than greedy suits in far-off boardrooms. Our attachment to fossil fuels is a diffuse and deeply human issue, and so should the solutions be.
Grounded in a uniquely participatory approach, this human focus runs to the heart of the project. The values, concerns and aspirations emerging from these discussions became the basis of tailored narratives, allowing climate change to be broached in ways that resonated with local audiences.
Lessons for a just energy transition from the Alberta Narratives Project
Despite its local scale, George insists this is ‘global work’, with important lessons for non-Albertans everywhere. The partnership methodology has been the signature format for an entire ‘Global Narratives Project’ series, bringing diverse constituencies into conversation not just in Alberta, but India, and soon the Middle East too.
‘First of all, don’t assume there is one just transition,’ says George. ‘Always recognise the distinctness of your audience. It’s about respect’. Every community is different and deserves its own voice.
In Alberta, recognising the role that oil and gas has played in securing local livelihoods proved crucial. Most environmentalists would balk at a narrative of ‘gratitude’ towards oil, but co-producing an equitable path out of fossil fuel dependency means making oil sands workers feel valued, not attacked. Empathic language that acknowledges oil’s place in local history could therefore be the key to cultivating support for decarbonisation.
Canadian climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe shared at a Climate Outreach event how she found this gratitude in a conversation with the leadership team of one of the biggest oil and gas companies: “I started by talking about all the benefits that the industrial revolution brought us – a childhood accident means I would have died without the medical technology enabled by fossil fuels – and then I said ‘but we didn’t know back then, and we know now’”.
This project was also one of the first to test language specifically on energy transitions. While participants were generally receptive to the concept, the word ‘just’, with its social justice connotations, proved to be anything but politically neutral. In an environment where attitudes towards climate are bound to political identities, many interviewees showed a reluctance to the idea of government handouts, even where an unjust transition would likely put them out of a job. Rather, the report recommends a narrative of ‘diversification’ rather than ‘transition’, stressing positive future opportunities instead of moving away from a negative past.
The Alberta Narratives Project shows that recognition of the human dimension of climate politics, though hard won, is only the start. To be just, a transition must be collaborative, but to be successful, it must consider what stories resonates with those involved. The science is clear: the time for dirty energy is gone. More than ever then, that means breaking climate’s political deadlock and recognising the positive role everyone can play. It means that it’s time to start talking.
The Alberta Federation of Labour has launched a campaign “by and for Alberta’s workers” in advance of the provincial election in Spring 2019. The Next Alberta Campaign website compares the party platforms of the NDP and the United Conservative Party (UCP) , characterized as “pragmatists” and “dinosaurs” – with a clear preference for the pragmatist NDP platform. In a March 13 press release, the AFL also released their own 12 Point Planwith this introduction by Gil McGowan, AFL President : “The old policy prescriptions of corporate tax cuts and deregulation .. are particularly ill-suited to the challenges we face today. And simply waiting for the next boom, as Alberta governments have done for decades, is not an option because it probably won’t happen. Like it or not, our future is going to be defined by change. So, the priority needs to be getting our people and our economy ready for that change, instead of sticking our heads in the sand.”
What exactly does the AFL propose? Their 12 Point Plan includes initiatives around five themes: Support Alberta’s oil & gas industry; Diversify the economy; Invest in Infrastructure; Invest in people (by investing in public services, including expanding medicare, child care and free tuition, and expanding pension plans); and Protect Workers’ Rights. With a very pragmatic orientation, the document has no mention of “Just Transition” or coal phase-out, and emissions reduction is proposed in these terms: “Reduce carbon emissions, as much as possible, from each barrel of oil produced in Alberta so, we can continue to access markets with increasingly stringent emission standards.”
On the issue of the oil and gas industry, the Plan states:
- We need to build new pipelines to access markets other than the U.S.
- We need to incentivize and support oil and gas companies in their efforts to reduce emissions so we can continue to access markets with increasingly stringent environmental standards.
- Our goal should be to make sure that Alberta is last heavy oil producer standing in an increasingly carbon constrained world.
On the issue of Infrastructure, the 12-Point Plan calls for:
- procurement policies need to be revamped, for example, to use Community Benefit Agreements which emphasize the public interest by awarding contracts to companies that hire local, buy local and achieve thresholds related to environmental, social, and economic factors.
- companies and contractors working on public infrastructure projects need to comply with labour standards, provide fair pay, and provide training for Albertans.
Research into communicating energy policies: The Alberta Narrative Project released a report, Communicating Climate Change and Energy in Alberta in February, documenting Albertan’s voices on issues of climate change, oil sands, politics, and more. Some highlights are cited in “Lessons in talking climate with Albertan Oil Workers” (Feb. 21), including:
“In Alberta, recognising the role that oil and gas has played in securing local livelihoods proved crucial. Most environmentalists would balk at a narrative of ‘gratitude’ towards oil, but co-producing an equitable path out of fossil fuel dependency means making oil sands workers feel valued, not attacked. Empathic language that acknowledges oil’s place in local history could therefore be the key to cultivating support for decarbonisation.
…..This project was also one of the first to test language specifically on energy transitions. While participants were generally receptive to the concept, the word ‘just’, with its social justice connotations, proved to be anything but politically neutral. In an environment where attitudes towards climate are bound to political identities, many interviewees showed a reluctance to the idea of government handouts, even where an unjust transition would likely put them out of a job. Rather, the report recommends a narrative of ‘diversification’ rather than ‘transition’, stressing positive future opportunities instead of moving away from a negative past.”
The Alberta Narratives Project is part of the global Climate Outreach Initiative, whose goal is to understand and train communicators to deliver effective communications which lead to cooperative approaches. The Alberta Narratives Project, with lead partners The Pembina Institute and Alberta Ecotrust, coordinated 75 community organizations to host 55 facilitated “Narrative Workshops” around the province, engaging an unusually broad spectrum of people: farmers, oil sands workers, energy leaders, business leaders, youth, environmentalists, New Canadians and others.
Pembina Institute communications seem to reflect the goal of an inclusive, constructive tone. For example, their pre-election report, Energy Policy Leadership in Alberta, released on March 8, makes recommendations regarding renewable energy, energy efficiency, coal phase-out, methane regulation, and “legislating an emissions reduction target for Alberta that is consistent with ensuring Canada meets its international obligations under the Paris climate agreement.” Also, Pricing Carbon Pollution in Alberta (March 8), which places carbon pricing in the history of the province since 2007, stresses the benefits, and makes recommendations relevant to the current political debate.
Climate change is in the mix, but not necessarily the top concern. Most people see climate change as an important issue. Most of the study participants said they were concerned or very concerned about it. However, almost nobody mentioned climate change as their main concern. Climate change should always be part of the discussion, but where and how it is mentioned should reflect the concerns and priorities of each different audience and recognize that other issues — work, economy, standard of life — may dominate.
The best approach is to frame climate change as a “challenge” to prepare for, recognizing that Alberta has historic strengths in finding solutions for tricky problems and coming together during extreme weather events. Most people accept that the weather is changing, but (so far) see the changes as manageable.
Gratitude for a good life. People see Alberta as a good place to live, work and raise a family. Narratives based on gratitude and thankfulness scored highly with study participants and initiated a positive discussion.
Recognize the contribution of oil and gas to this good life. To initiate a positive conversation, communicators should reflect on the connection that many Albertans have with the oil and gas industry and recognize the contribution that those working in the industry have made to their prosperity and way of life.
Everyone is important in Alberta. Recognition must also be given to the non-energy sectors, such as farming, tourism, and other service industries. Discussions about transition and diversification should also include a vision for these other sectors to play a larger role in the provincial economy.
The main problems with oil and gas are over-dependency, vulnerability and insecurity. People’s primary concern is that the provincial economy — and their livelihoods — which are tied to a volatile global demand and oil prices. This boom and bust cycle, external criticism and the tightening of national and international climate change policy generates insecurity and uncertainty.
We need to diversify. There is a strong interest in building a broader economic base and supporting new growth sectors, including renewables.
We can discuss our choices. In their conversations, study participants repeatedly talked about the choices they have made in their lives. Many of them chose to move to Alberta and many of them shifted careers as the economic situation changed. Narratives that allowed people to choose their own options were favored.
Working together and finding shared solutions that work for all Albertans. People responded most positively to co-operative language rather than combative language. The experience in many jurisdictions (including British Columbia, California, Germany and the United Kingdom) is that building a cross-party consensus, based on shared values, has been essential for building lasting policy.
Open-mindedness and discussion. All groups favoured more discussion and many people disliked the increasingly polarized and ill-mannered debate. Even those who rejected environmentalist arguments favoured the sentence “environmentalists should feel free to raise their concerns.”
Investing in the future. Study participants were widely concerned about the long-term implications of investment decisions, especially in infrastructure.
They questioned the cost of pipelines, whether they could pay back their high-capital costs and the lack of investment in oil refining. A discussion about the choices of where to make long-term investment decisions would initiate a broad and open discussion.
Balanced evaluation of costs and benefits. People recognize the contribution of oil and gas to the economy. And they recognize that, as with any benefit, there have also been costs. A balanced evaluation of both is required.
Straight talk. In their conversations, study participants frequently demanded or praised authenticity and “straight” talk. They favoured simple language that presented clear options. In particular, honesty in a communicator might involve admitting that the options are not easy and that one does not necessarily know all the answers to the long-term outcomes.
This will not be easy. People in Alberta are proud of their ability to respond, adapt and cope. Study participants strongly favoured language that responded to climate change by saying an energy transition will “not be easy” and will be “challenging” but, through that process, it could be rewarding. This language was seen as authentic and honest.
Renewables offer new opportunities and positive challenges — the next “boom”
Participants supported a major expansion in renewable energy, and described it in terms of new opportunities and innovation. Oil and gas professionals were enthusiastic about the technical challenges. Hoping for an upturn in the energy sector, some said renewables could provide the next “boom.”
Least successful language:
- Climate change is the most important issue we face.
- Climate change is a huge and immediate threat.
- Blame and intolerance
- Excessive focus on oil and gas.
- The main problem with oil is climate change and environmental destruction (most people think regulations have done a good job)
- Alberta can be a leader on climate change
- Alberta is the best, has the best legislation, etc.
- “Made here” Climate Change Policy. The narrative, used by many politicians, is that Alberta needs its own policy to avoid having one imposed by Ottawa. It tested poorly. Many people rejected the confrontational and anti-Canadian framing. Those who might support provincial rights did not feel sufficient ownership of the current policy (originating from one party) to lend it their support.
- This is the only way
- Tribalism. People consistently rejected language that set one group against another. Even those who were critical of environmental campaigners wanted an open discussion and rejected language such as: “environmental extremists take a very narrow view that is not grounded in reality.”
- Pipeline battles. At the time of research (spring 2018) pipelines were not a major topic of sustained discussion for any group and were typically only mentioned in passing as a symptom of wider issues, such as bad government policy or environmental extremism. This is an evolving issue, and may yet change, but the research recommends caution in assuming that pipelines are a topic that will galvanize productive or fresh conversation about climate change or energy.
- Uncritical praise for the oil and gas sector. Uncritical praise such as: “we have one of the best-regulated energy industries in the world” was highly polarizing for study participants.